NCLR's Seaton Says Hate Crime Murders Demonstrate Clear Need for Federal Law

April 21, 2009
Guest Post

By Liz Seaton, Director of Projects and Managing Attorney, National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR).

Angie Zapata, 18, was savagely beaten to death with a fire extinguisher in her home in Greeley, Colo. in July, 2008. Prosecutors have charged her accused killer, Allen Ray Andrade, with murder in the first degree and under the state's hate crimes statute, which makes it a bias crime to kill someone because of their "transgender status," among other crimes.

On Friday, April 18, Angie's mother, her sister, and her close friend all testified at the trial. All were weeping or visibly sad, and all honored Angie's life as she lived it, by calling her by her true name and referring to her as female. Their love for Angie was evident, but being well-loved cannot save a transgender person from hate violence.

An alarming number of transgender people are brutally murdered in crimes motivated by hate. With national media attention focused on the Andrade trial and CNN.com broadcasting portions of the trial live, Angie's name is now known. Also familiar is the name Brandon Teena, because his life and horrific death at the hands of two men in Nebraska who discovered he was a transgender person were memorialized in the mass-distributed film "Boys Don't Cry." People may also recognize the name Gwen Arajuo, because national newspapers reported that the two men who murdered her and buried her in a shallow grave in California were convicted of second degree murder.

In most cases, hate crimes specifically against transgender people are not reported but the problem is now well-documented anecdotally. Many transgender people, especially transgender women of color, have been killed under circumstances where hate apparently played the motivating role. In many of these cases, we do not know all of the details but their names, and such facts as we know them, have been held out by their families, by community activists or by the local media. Those names include: Chanel Chandler and Ruby Rodrigez of California; Fred Martinez Jr. of Colorado; Terrianne Summers of Florida; Billy Jean Levetter and "Sissy" Charles Bolden of Georgia; Tacy Ranta and Natasha Hunt of Maryland; Rita Hester of Massachusetts; Sakia Gunn of New Jersey; Amanda Milan of New York; Lorenzo "Loni" Okaruru of Oregon; Nakia Ladelle Baker of Tennessee; Bibi (Hugo Cesar) Barajas of Texas; Tyrone "Tyra" Henderson of Washington, D.C.; and so many more.

Under-investigation and under-prosecution have been a recurring problem in apparent hate crimes murders of transgender people, though Angie's case is being fully prosecuted. Whatever result there is in this particular case, even if justice is reached in the criminal justice sense of that word, it will not bring Angie Zapata back to those who loved her. More is needed to prevent this kind of tragedy from taking place.
It is long past time for Congress to act to end hate violence against transgender people, as well as lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Pending now in the House of Representatives is a long overdue federal hate crimes bill that would address hate violence based on actual or perceived gender identity, as well as sexual orientation, gender and disability: The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Protection Act (H.R. 1913). This legislation would do three things. First, it would give the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) the power to investigate and prosecute hate crimes. It would also give DOJ authority to aid state and local jurisdictions investigating or prosecuting these crimes, or, where local authorities are unwilling or unable to act, by taking the lead in investigations and prosecutions of bias-motivated, violent crimes resulting in death or serious bodily injury. The bill would make grants available to state and local communities to combat violent crimes, train law enforcement officers or assist in state and local investigations and prosecutions of bias-motivated crimes.

Hate violence drives fear into the heart of members of the affected communities. Our national leaders should take decisive action to end it. Congress - first the House, and then the Senate - should act expeditiously to enact this important legislation, and President Obama should promptly sign it into law.